Biden administration sets first national standard to limit ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

Apr 10, 2024, 7:03 AM | Updated: Apr 14, 2024, 7:42 pm

A federal test of this well located in Salt Lake's Memory Grove, found small amounts of "forever ch...

A federal test of this well located in Salt Lake's Memory Grove, found small amounts of "forever chemicals," in the well water in March 2024. (Shelby Lofton, KSL TV)

(Shelby Lofton, KSL TV)

(CNN) — The Biden administration finalized the first national standard to limit dangerous “forever chemicals” found in nearly half of the drinking water in the United States. Some environmentalists called the new rule a “huge breakthrough” and “historic” change that can help protect human health.

The new standard is legally enforceable and aims to reduce exposure to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.” Water utilities will now have to filter out five of more than 12,000 types of individual forever chemicals — PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS and HFPO-DA, also known as GenX chemicals. The regulations also set a limit for mixtures of any two or more of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX chemicals.

Related: Two water wells found with forever chemicals in Salt Lake

This family of ubiquitous synthetic chemicals are used to help products repel water and oil, but they linger in the environment and the human body. They are linked to a variety of health problems including cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems and heart and liver damage among other issues. The chemicals are found in the blood of nearly 97% of all Americans, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued health advisories that said the chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than scientists originally thought and are probably more dangerous even at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.

But until now, there was no federal standard on the chemicals in drinking water. Only a handful of states have passed laws that compelled water utilities to test for and filter out the chemicals.

The new drinking water standard will reduce PFAS exposure for about 100 million people in the United States, the administration said.

“I will tell you, five years ago, I was working really hard in states across the country that were interested in setting their own drinking water standards because we all believed that there was no way we were going to get a federal drinking water standard,” said Dr. Anna Reade, director of PFAS advocacy, environmental health at the environmental group NRDC. “I think it’s a huge breakthrough in terms of action on PFAS.”

New standards, new investments

The new regulations set different standards for different chemicals.

For PFOA and PFOS, the enforceable maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) will be set at 4.0 parts per trillion individually. This standard will reduce exposure from these PFAS in drinking water to the lowest levels that are feasible for effective implementation, according to the administration.

The new maximum contaminant level goal for PFOA and PFOS — a non-enforceable, health-based goal — will be zero. The zero standard reflects the latest research that shows that there is no level of exposure without risk, senior administration officials said on Tuesday.

For PFNA, PFHxS and GenX chemicals, EPA is setting the contaminant level at 10 parts per trillion.

The government estimates about 6% to 10% of the 66,000 water systems in the US will have to improve their filtering systems to come into compliance with this new standard.

Water treatment facilities will have three years to test for the chemicals and two years to purchase, install and operate the technologies that can filter out forever chemicals if they exceed the standard. Public water systems must inform people about the level of PFAS in the drinking water.

The Biden administration is also making what it calls an “unprecedented” $1 billion in newly available funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help states and territories ramp up testing and treatment for these chemicals at public water systems and for owners of private wells. The money is part of a $9 billion investment to help communities manage water contaminated with PFAS and other contaminants.

The EPA also has a Water Technical Assistance program to help small, disadvantaged, and rural communities access federal financing and help them develop a plan going forward.

Environmentalists laud ‘historic’ change

Just how much the federal standard will reduce people’s overall exposure to PFAS isn’t completely clear, according to Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, an environmental group that has been advocating for decades for the country to clean up these chemicals.

Andrews called the new national standard “historic.”

“This is the first time since the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments were passed in 1996 that a drinking water contaminant made it through the regulatory process to the finish line,” Andrews said.

Drinking water probably accounts for at least 20% of people’s exposure to these forever chemicals, Andrews said, but it could be more depending on the water utility.
People are also exposed to these forever chemicals through food, clothing, household products, dust and several other sources.

The new standard will boost drinking water quality overall, Andrews said, since filters used to get rid of PFAS will also likely filter out other contaminants like disinfection byproducts.

However, the action won’t completely eliminate exposure from drinking water. Most environmentalists believe the EPA should set a standard for the entire class of chemicals. This regulation only applies to a handful.

“This problem is so large,” NRDC’s Reade said. “Again, we shouldn’t take away from the fact that this is just a really monumental step forward.”

Erik Olson, a senior strategic director for health at NRDC, said the effectiveness of the standard will also depend on enforcement. In most of the country, states will have primary enforcement responsibility.

“In most states, tracking violations, reporting those violations, enforcing against violations, is very poor and the vast majority of violators never face penalties,” Olson said.

Olson said the rule will encourage water utilities to invest in modern technology. Some systems still rely on World War I-era technology, he said.

“We hope they will recognize that they need to make these investments,” Olson said. “Honestly, we’re living off of the investments of our great grandparents that built a lot of these systems.”

Critics question cost to water systems

Change will come at too great cost for some utilities, according to Dr. Chad Seidel, a Colorado-based engineer who works with drinking water utilities, and president at Corona Environmental Consulting.

Seidel, who is critical of the standards, said many facilities had already been working hard to reduce PFAS from drinking water for “quite some time before a national regulation.”

Seidel believes the utilities with high PFAS concentrations should address the problem, but the health benefit may not be as signficant for facilities with lower concentrations. The regulation, he said, comes at a “really, really high cost for potentially low public health benefit.”

“We want to make sure those limited resources we’ve got in our communities really are used to address public health concerns and drinking water, and I wish the list was really, really short ahead of PFAS, but unfortunately, there’s a lot of really pressing things that we want to keep addressing,” Seidel said.

The American Chemistry Council, an association that represents US chemical, plastics and chlorine industries, took issue with the underlying science used to develop the new standards. It argued that the rule will cost three to four times more than the EPA anticipates, with the cost burden falling on smaller water systems and taxpayers.

The EPA says it has conducted a thorough cost evaluation of the rule and said the benefits and costs of the standard would be about $1.5 billion, with the real benefit being fewer cancers, a lower incidence of heart attacks and reduced birth complications.

CNN’s Sandee LaMotte contributed to this report

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Biden administration sets first national standard to limit ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water